Why not a Korea-U.S.-Japan TTC?
The author, a professor at the Ewha Womans University Graduate School of International Studies, is president of the Korea Foundation for Advanced Studies.
President-elect Yoon Suk-yeol has been decisive and clear on the foreign affairs front. He has sent a delegation to Washington shortly after his election in March and visited the U.S. military base in Pyeongtaek, Gyeonggi. On the campaign trail in February, he contributed an opinion piece to Foreign Affairs in which he wrote, “A deeper alliance with Washington should be the central axis of Seoul’s foreign policy.”
Yoon has veered away from the strategic ambiguity in foreign policy of President Moon Jae-in to strategic certainty. Foreign affairs have become closely related to security and economic affairs. Now the second largest economic power, China has challenged the United States in a power contest through a technological buildup. President Xi Jinping has exposed his ambitions for China’s control of East Asia, claiming the Pacific should be shared by China and America. The U.S. hopes for more democratic development in China once it joined the free international order have been dashed. The U.S. containment campaign that started under President Donald Trump has entered a second stage under Joe Biden.
The West hailed the triumph of democracy when the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union that prevailed in the late 20th century ended. Francis Fukuyama represented western intelligentsia when he declared in his book “The End of History and the Last Man” that the progression of human history as a struggle between ideologies had come to an end with the crumbling of the communist bloc led by the Soviets along with the Berlin Wall. After the ebbing away of struggles between ideologies, the larger priority for most countries was how to make their people richer. Economic compulsions came to overwhelm political ones. Trade ties were possible with regimes once considered enemies or at least rivals. All countries moved in that direction. New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman came up with what is known as the Golden Arches Theory of Conflict Prevention, the notion that countries with McDonald’s within their borders do not go to war with other countries with McDonalds.
Were Fukuyama and Friedman wrong? The history of mankind apparently didn’t end with the triumph of democracy in 1989 and, in fact, democracy has been in retreat in many places around the globe in the last 30 years. China claims that elections cannot be considered an acid test of democracy. Making people more prosperous is the acid test, it insists, and making them happy is democracy. Vladimir Putin’s Russia in February invaded Ukraine. McDonald’s hamburgers sell in Russia and Ukraine. Communism borrowed capitalism, but capitalism could not replace socialism. The U.S. and the U.K., which spearheaded globalization, are leaving the stage they designed. America has demoralized the World Trade Organization’s crucial dispute arbitration function. The U.K. bolted out of the European Union.
The crisis of democracy and a weakening of globalization can be risks for South Korea. Upon achieving democratization, the country fell into the middle-income trap like other developing nations as they struggled to move up to the next stage. South Korea has joined the ranks of the developed world by riding the globalization wave in trade, where ideology did not matter. Security guarantee from the U.S. helped South Korea’s rags-to-riches transformation following the Korean War. But the paradigm of Korea sticking to the U.S. for security and China in an economic partnership has come under strain more than once.
Seoul was comfortable with the prioritization of security in its relationship with Washington and of trade with Beijing, especially when the U.S. was keenly engaging China. Even after America began to contain China, Seoul rigidly kept to its dogma and stayed passive or defensive, citing economic interests when it was asked to join U.S.-led initiatives to rein in China. But with China, South Korea did not aggressively defend its national interests despite traditional alliance with the U.S. when security issues were raised. The government responded that it could not interfere with a “private-sector issue” when America asked South Korea to join its sanctions on Huawei Technologies to contain its predominance in 5G equipment and networks. Seoul took the security alliance for granted by thinking it was unshakable.
Political circles and think tanks in Washington have seen Seoul getting too close to Beijing. An alliance cannot remain solid if trust is lost. If the incoming Yoon Suk-yeol administration wants to reinforce the alliance with America, it will have to go through a trust test. Seoul should propose to take one before it is forced to.
The U.S. containment of China that began with Trump continues. Trump waged a unilateral trade war with China, while Joe Biden’s administration is bringing on nations sharing such values as freedom. The keystone of the campaign is to reduce strategic reliance on China in resources used for both industry and security by strengthening supply chains in the U.S. and nations it trusts. The strategic importance of semiconductors, batteries, rare earth minerals and drugs was heightened amidst the rise of China and the pandemic. Since America cannot win the campaign alone, it is essential to have partners. The U.S. and EU launched the Trade and Technology Council (TTC) last year for discussions and sharing of information about global supply chains, chips, artificial intelligence, export curbs, and other issues of regional significance. The U.S. is envisioning a similar platform — the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF) — with Asian partners. That framework could take longer to pull together since India has not joined the sanctions on Russia for its invasion of Ukraine.
South Korea and Japan are the backbone of the technology alliance of democratic states in Asia. The two countries play an important role in supplying parts and materials as well as the assembling of technology products. As the U.S. has an alliance with each, it hopes the two Asian partners can team up in a joint front against China. Despite differences over issues from a painful past, Japan also wishes to be in the same boat as South Korea as it shares the same values in terms of democracy and market economics. Tokyo was most eager to have Seoul in the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) when U.S. President Barack Obama led the talks. Seoul hesitated to join the multilateral free trade agreement led by America and Japan due to its spat with Tokyo over history issues.
Instead, South Korea worked on its own bilateral FTA with China. But the FTA with China proved to be of little help. Despite the FTA, South Korean companies had to endure discrimination and retribution for security decisions. Seoul did not protest too much in fear of losing Beijing’s support over North Korean issues.
But young South Koreans disagree with the passivity of the Moon administration. They want South Korea to stand up to China and make choices confidently and assertively based on national interests and principles and its right as a sovereign state.
Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.